Corn chip terrorism
Free Press Special Report; Part one - The impact of biotechnology on the
things we eat
By John Warner, Contributing Editor; Hwy. 58 Free Press
While folks across the nation engaged in the annual Super Bowl ritual a
few weeks ago, collectively consuming tons of snack foods and beverages
during one of the most important events of the year for retailers like
Frito-Lay Inc., diplomats were in Canada deliberating on the so called
Biosafety Protocol; an event that coalesced around the growing debate over
the impact of biotechnology on society, and especially in our food.
Ironically, foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have
been widely consumed for several years now, and with no apparent ill
An estimated 60% of the foods Americans consume are processed via
biotechnology, or contain compounds that have been genetically altered. A
genetically engineered version of the enzyme chymosin is used in the
production of most cheese in the U.S. In the market place since it was
approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1990, manufacturers
prefer the purer genetically altered version over the natural one. Before
the advent of biotech chymosin, the natural enzyme was obtained from
rennet, a compound taken from the fourth stomach of suckling calves.
Other biotech products now in use include grains like Bt corn - seed that
contains genetically inserted bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) that
combats the devastating effects of European corn borer larvae, an insect
that prevents an estimated 40 million tons of corn from reaching the
market each year. A Novartis product, Bt corn was extensively tested, then
reviewed by three separate government agencies (FDA, USDA, and EPA) before
it was introduced into the market place. Other products in use include
insect-protected varieties of cotton seed and potatoes (Monsanto's
Bollgard and NewLeaf, respectively). The new seed varieties enable farmers
to decrease the amount of toxic chemicals applied to their crops and the
soil, while consumers (except for the targeted insects) digest bacillus
thuringiensis with no ill effects.
The FDA estimates "...(a)bout half of the American soybean crop planted in
1999...carries a gene that makes it resistant..." to a herbicide. These
and dozens of other products are the result of a quiet revolution in
biotechnology, steadily gaining momentum over the last two decades - a
revolution that shows promise of ending hunger in developing countries,
increasing crop yield, reducing the use of herbicides in the environment,
and saving forests that would otherwise be cleared for agricultural uses.
Biotechnology and specifically the use of GMOs were pivotal issues at the
World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last year. Dubbed
frankenfood by protestors, the media quickly incorporated the evocative
term into the lexicon, and unwittingly helped extremists in their cause by
promoting uncertainty and fear. Chances are extremely good that militant
vegans (vegetarians) who raised the ruckus over biotechnology have been
consuming genetically altered products along with everyone else.
The biosafety protocol, a detailed agreement regarding genetically
modified food, calls for labeling on a host of products. The labeling
essentially amounts to new trade regulations that could have a significant
impact on the way food manufacturers do business around the planet.
Language in the protocol allows an importing country to ban genetically
altered products, based on subjective determination of safety. If a
trading partner can't ensure the product is safe, the importing country
can turn it away.
It's the inability of science to unequivocally make those guarantees that
extremists are focusing on, while the media is doing its part to fuel the
uncertainty. Unsubstantiated claims about GMOs, and in some cases,
outright lies, are regularly regurgitated by the mainstream media, fueling
widespread fear about biotechnology. What the impassioned debate over
so-called frankenfoods fails to address, are a host of scientific data in
support of continued research and consumption of genetically modified
Corn chip terrorism: Part two - The role of the media
"...(P)rotestors dressed in costumes may provide for a good media
sideshow, and I understand that it has worked in Europe. However, American
consumers need facts, not fiction, on which to base their
decisions...(U.S. Senator Kit Bond at the World Trade Organization
Ministerial Conference in Seattle, Washington - November 30, 1999)."
The World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference, held in Seattle last
fall, was a disaster in many respects thanks to contributions by the
mainstream media. Publications and programs sympathetic to activists
promoted and encouraged one of the largest gatherings of protestors in
history. Woefully unprepared for the literal onslaught, Seattle is still
paying for it's lack of foresight.
Newspapers like the Eugene Register-Guard published in-depth features on
activists planning to attend and preparations they were making for the
event. Career protestor and Warner Creek veteran Mick Garvin was
interviewed as he reportedly built a homemade siege tower for use in
Seattle. Garvin had illegally occupied a section of road on the Willamette
National Forest near Oakridge with other Earth First! protestors in 1995.
Damages from the illegal occupation (including trees they cut to construct
barricades) cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
The San Francisco Chronicle ran a subheadline that read; FOODS: Fears over
genetic alterations. Chronicle staff writer Tom Abate issued what amounted
to a call to arms in his story, published a week before the conference.
"The trade summit will give many Americans their first exposure to a
controversy that has raged in Europe," wrote Abate, "where stories about
'Frankenfoods' suggest that genetically altered soybeans, corn and other
crops pose unknown dangers to animals, humans and the environment."
Genetically modified crop production was only one of many topics on the
He went on to say that opposition to biotechnology is growing in America,
"...especially among organic foods advocates..", then liberally quoted
Alice Waters, a restaurant owner and, according to Abate, a leader of the
natural foods movement. Waters implied that Americans were lagging behind
their European counterparts in the movement, and painted an alarming
picture - without the benefit of any supporting information.
"We are way behind the Europeans on this," Waters was quoted, "This is
even more frightening than pesticides. We're really upsetting the web of
life when we make genetic alterations." By strategically including Waters'
comments in the story, Abate sent a clear signal to Chronicle readers
about perceived problems with genetically altered foods, despite his
attempt to balance the piece later on.
Abate's unqualified conjecture (at least in the story) about Waters being
a "leader", established her credibility with readers, as did his statement
about "growing" opposition. Words like controversy, raged, Frankenfoods,
genetically altered, and unknown dangers, were evocative tools in a report
that presented little factual information about biotechnology. The
Chronicle, Register-Guard and other media outlets fueled the fear about a
technology that continues to be poorly understood by a large segment of
With a focus on the protest, the milieu outside the actual conference
quickly deteriorated once delegates arrived in late November. Protestors
and police grabbed headlines and photo opportunities, while ministers and
an army of legal advisors from participating countries conducted their
business, virtually unnoticed by the press.
What most people remember about the conference are poignant moments in
time, like the photo of a riot cop kicking a protestor in the groin.
Peripheral at best, and totally ignored by most newspapers and news
programs, was a November 30 press conference in Seattle conducted by U.S.
Senator Kip Bond (R-MO) and several respected scientists, all of whom
discussed the benefits of biotechnology.
Also presented during the press conference, was a letter of support signed
by more that 300 scientists - one of the few times in recent history that
members of the scientific community showed solidarity and widespread
support for a technology.
Researchers from the private and public sectors - and from academia,
clearly agreed about the benefits to consumers and "strongly advocate(d)
the use of sound science as the basis for regulatory and political
decisions pertaining to biotechnology." The mainstream media however,
apparently overlooked these significant facts.
Part three - Profile of Terrorism
"It was an attack on me... I was named. It was a violation... My family is
afraid (Dr. Catherine Ives, Director of Michigan State University's
Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project - after a December 31, 1999
arson fire at MSU Agriculture Hall. Earth Liberation Front claimed
While there is no accurate way to gage the number of anti-biotech
activists across the country, law enforcement agencies, scientists and
other industry advocates are well aware of the potential for violence and
mayhem. What isn't so easily understood is the rationale behind so-called
direct actions; extremist parlance for illegal acts, designed to force
transnational corporations, government and the biotechnology industry to
What extremists would have us believe, is that violence produces a
beneficial outcome. In reality, militant individuals and factions
represent only a small part of a poorly organized anti-biotechnology
movement in the U.S. But, it's the violent minority that attracts the most
Attacks like the one that reportedly caused $400,000 in damage to Michigan
State University's Agriculture Hall on December 31, 1999 clearly
terrorized at least one researcher, Dr. Catherine Ives. She was singled
out in an Earth Liberation Front (ELF) communique, indicating that members
of this militant group perpetrated the crimes. The unidentified author of
the communique, (dutifully reproduced in an ELF media release by Portland
resident Craig Rosebraugh), accused Monsanto of funding the university's
Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project - a program directed by Ives.
Monsanto officials said the company contributed $2,000 to the program -
providing a way for five African students at MSU to attend a biotechnology
conference. Ives, a scientist and researcher, believes in her work and
sees biotechnology as way for the world to solve some of its current
problems, like food shortages and inadequate crop yields. What she can't
understand is why the ELF targeted her project. Her confusion is shared by
others in the field who are fully versed in the intricacies of
biotechnology, and base their research on scientific method and
Rationalism vs. Extremism
In reality, direct actions make little sense and rarely accomplish their
stated purposes. They do however, make good grist for the news mill.
Newspapers and television news programs often fuel anti-biotechnology
sentiment and other related issues, by publicizing acts of vandalism and
imbuing movement spokespersons with semblances of credibility.
"The Earth Liberation Front," stated self-described ELF spokesman Craig
Rosebraugh, in his media release about the MSU fire on January 20, 2000, "
is an international underground organization that uses direct action to
stop the systematic exploitation and destruction of the natural
Displaying his ignorance of agricultural practices and techniques,
Rosebraugh talked about the targeted MSU program during an interview for
an Associated Press story, published on January 25.
"I don't know why they aren't pushing organic crop production or crop
rotation," he was quoted as saying. "That has a more realistic
sustainability." The AP reporter gave no indication of how Rosebraugh
might be qualified to comment about crop production or crop rotation.
Several weeks later, after FBI, ATF and U.S. Forest Service agents raided
Rosebraugh's home (looking for documents and evidence that might link him
to illegal ELF actions), the Oregonian again neglected to indicate how he
was qualified to comment on biotechnology issues, but they did report that
he worked in an organic bakery in Portland.
Newspapers like the Oregonian and the Detroit Free Press have borrowed
liberally from media releases provided by Rosebraugh, in which he
extensively quotes himself. To readers, unfamiliar with biotechnology, or
the attempts by activists to vilify the industry, poorly researched
features and reports only serve to legitimize so-called spokesmen like
Rosebraugh, who rely on emotion and persuasion, to further
anti-biotechnology agendas - issues glaringly devoid of any real science,
or rational approach. Other criminal acts have also been by publicized by
the media this year - acts that don't appear to make any real sense, but
are reported nevertheless.
Vandals, calling themselves the Fragaria Freedom Farmers, snuck into a
small test plot near Watsonville, California on the evening of January 20,
and destroyed several rows of strawberries (fragarias), evidently thinking
the plants were genetically modified. An official from Plant Sciences Inc.
(the biotech firm where the damage was perpetrated) told the Santa Cruz
County Sentinel, the plants were "conventional" hybrids.
In an ELF communique, following vandalism in a University of Minnesota
greenhouse in February this year, the unidentified author warned the U of
M and the entire biotech industry that profits would "...continue to fall"
with the destruction of "biodiversity on the Earth". And, while these
activities (clearly criminal in nature and intent) damaged property and a
few experimental oat plants, they also prompted FBI involvement, because
of the federal funding aspect of the research.
Meanwhile, industry profits reportedly continue to rise as consumers see
the real benefits of biotechnology - not only in agriculture, but in
medicine and other related fields. According to Ernst & Young LLP, in
their Annual Biotechnology Industry Reports, 1993 - 1999, Biotechnology
sales topped $13.4 billion in 1999, more than double the amount reported
in 1993, and by 1999, the industry employed an estimated 153,000 workers.
Since 1985, granting of biotechnology patents has risen from more than
1,000 per year in the U.S., to more than 9,000 in 1998 (U.S Patent and
Trademark Office, Technology Profile Report - April, 1999).
Overwhelming evidence exists that points to a reliance on technology, and
specifically the Internet, as tools for terrorism. Along with a number of
websites that promote and encourage direct action, several Internet sites
actually provide instructional material on how to build detonators,
information on security techniques and ways to fund clandestine
And, while Craig Rosebraugh claims he has no clue about where ELF
communiques come from, he is quick to fax the information to major media
outlets. He also (acting as media contact) presumably posts the
information on the website, relying on the tools of information technology
to promote the cause of these extremist groups.
Pages on the Animal Liberation Frontline Information Service (ALFIS)
website contain how-to information ranging from parts lists and plans for
detonators, to detailed information on financing terrorists acts by
diverting (embezzling) money from legitimate fund-raising activities. The
website clearly supports militant activity and posts media updates,
communiques, and mainstream news reports of vandalism, arson and other
illegal acts, reportedly perpetrated by the ELF, the Animal Liberation
Front (ALF), and other groups fighting biotechnology.
The genetiX action! website promotes and encourages activists to commit a
variety of criminal acts in support of their cause. "Tactics that have
been effective," states one section on this extremist website, "are
theatrical disruptions - public rallies - information distribution - do a
biohazard removal (ethical shoplifting)* - demand the supermarket go
Site authors claim, "...the US has seen little confrontation on biotech
issues...they need to feel the heat." The website also encourage activists
to "...withhold a certain percentage (of taxes) in the defiance of the US
governments (sic) propping of the biotech industry..." Many of the sites
are also linked to a variety of activist pages, and even legitimate
organizations. Targeted industry websites are also linked, as resources
for would-be terrorists. But evidence also exists that biotechnology
firms, law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Government are also
committing more resources in support of the industry.
*Ethical shoplifting is phrase used on the genetiX action! website as it
appears in the quote, and not a parenthetical comment by the author.
Corn chip terrorism is a multipart series produced by the Hwy. 58 Free
Press. Look for Conclusion - The future of biotechnology, in a upcoming
Conclusion - The future of biotechnology
"The facts are nevertheless there for all to see - foods and products
produced through this technology have been subjected to more rigorous
scrutiny than any others in the history of humanity (Dr. Val Giddings,
Vice President for Food and Agriculture at BIO)."
Industry advocates appear to making every effort to educate the public
about the benefits of biotechnology. Cornell University researcher Susan
McCouch is convinced that agricultural biotechnology will help to level
the playing field between wealthy countries and developing nations, where
inhabitants rely on subsistence farming for their essential nutritional
The appropriate ethical perspective, implies McCouch, an associate
professor of plant breeding at Cornell, isn't whether or not innovation
should be pursued, but how "...well-fed people in the United States,
Canada and Europe..." are ignoring, "...the potential of biotechnology to
improve the nutritional status of hungry people around the world..." She
believes that innovative modifications in crops, planted in those
developing countries, will become valuable tools in combating
And while some activists and most anti-biotechnology extremists rant about
transnational corporations that "put profits ahead of lives", it's clear
the industry is making serious attempts to address consumer concerns -
especially with respect to human life..
"Consumer acceptance is the first and most important issue here," said L.
Val Giddings, Ph.D., during testimony before the Senate Committee on
Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. "If you build a better mousetrap,
the saying goes, the world will beat a path to your door. But only if they
believe you've built a better mousetrap..." Giddings is Vice President for
Food and Agriculture at BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization).
BIO, according to information provided on their website, "...represents
more than 900 companies, academic institutions and state biotech centers
in 47 states and 26 nations." Possibly the largest biotechnology
organization in the world, BIO has established a Statement of Principles
with a focus on ethics. Members are expected to abide by principles that
cover a variety of issues, including: Education; applying technology for
the benefit of mankind; listening and responding to concerns about the
implications of biotechnology; placing their "highest priority" on health,
safety and environmental protection (for the entire Statement of
Principles visit BIO's website at
(http://www.bio.org/bioethics/principles.html), and more.
Elsewhere, hundreds of other scientists and researchers are lending their
support to biotechnology on a website called AgBioWorld.org. Sponsored and
maintained by Professor C.S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant
Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, he and other researchers
drafted a declaration that was delivered at the Convention on Biological
Diversity in Montreal this year. Prakash submitted the declaration on
January 24, during discussions about the Biosafety Protocol - a
declaration signed by more than 600 hundred biotechnology professionals.
"There is no scientific reason," reads one section of the declaration, "to
believe that the use of recombinant DNA techniques or other advanced
biotechnologies inherently poses new or more dangerous threats to
biodiversity, to other aspects of environmental quality or to human
health, than do traditional methods of plant breeding or cell culture."
The remarkable thing about the declaration is the impetus it's gained
since it was first presented in January. Since that time, Prakash has made
the declaration available on the AgBioWorld.org site and invited other
scientists to participate.
In just a few days after the Biosafety Protocol talks concluded, more than
1,000 scientists had added their names to the declaration. By March 1, the
list had grown to more than 1,330 names, with scientists holding
doctorates in biotechnology and related fields, comprising more than
two-thirds of the total. On March 15, 2000, more than 1,588 submissions
had been received and verified.
And while science continues to address public issues and concerns, an
anorexic anti-biotechnology movement in the U.S. appears to be losing any
headway it may have gained over the last few years. Speculation and
outright misinformation like the reported effects of Bt corn pollen on
Monarch butterfly larvae, continue to circulate among activists, who
either don't believe what researchers have demonstrated (Monarch butterfly
larvae don't eat corn pollen outside the laboratory), or are afraid to
apply common sense and logic to emotional issues that have little
foundation in reality.
Brought into the forefront of a supposed controversy last year, with a
letter to the science journal Nature, Cornell University entomologist John
Losey indicated that pollen from Bt corn (genetically enhanced with
Bacillus Thuringiensis; a natural pesticide) can have an adverse affect on
Monarch butterfly larvae. Once published, Losey's conclusions gave
activists the ammunition they needed to vilify the industry, and an
opportunity to sway public opinion against biotechnology.
Furor surrounding wild claims of imminent doom and danger to this colorful
species of lepidoptera galvanized researchers, who carefully scrutinized
Bt corn crops during the 1999 growing season. By the end of the year,
scientists showed at a Chicago symposium (on November 2) that,
"Genetically improved corn poses negligible harm to the Monarch butterfly
Organizers know what tools are available to environmental movements and
liberally wield elements of applied sociology among their supporters -
people who are typically unwilling to study important issues for
themselves; choosing instead, to regurgitate prepackaged and
emotionally-charged information prepared by someone else.
"The public outcry around environmental 'crises' does not arise from
objective conditions in the natural or humanly constructed environment,"
says Brian Martin, an educator at the University of Wollongong in
Australia, "but rather reflects a number of essentially political
processes including labelling, persuasion and social action (emphasis
added)." A radical and activist, Martin believes that many environmental
groups simply lack strategy - truth apparently isn't a priority.
Campaign focuses also play an importantly role. In the case of
biotechnology, activists attempted to use Monarch butterfly larvae as a
rallying point. But, as factual information continues to surface,
regarding genetically modified organisms and other important biotechnology
issues, the public will undoubtedly find more reason to disregard
emotional outcries from a social movement that has little basis in fact.
Meanwhile, companies like Frito-Lay are sending the wrong message to
consumers and farmers. The PepsiCo subsidiary reportedly angered corn
growers in the U.S. and Canada, after the Biosafety Protocol discussions
in Montreal concluded in January, by asking suppliers to refrain from
using genetically modified grain. While the company acknowledged that
biotech foods are safe, according to the FDA, Frito-Lay says "(t)here is
some consumer concern out there."
What they aren't telling consumers is that overseas sales of their
products account for a large part of their revenue - places where
extremists apparently have more clout. The company is showing Americans,
despite a plethora of legitimate data about the benefits of biotechnology,
that it's willing to be a hostage to corn chip terrorism.
John Warner is contributing editor at the Hwy. 58 Free Press. Questions or
comments? You can reach John at (541) 782-3984, or by e-mail at
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